After Sept. 11, 2001, most Americans thought justice and prudence demanded sending troops to Afghanistan to oust the Taliban and extirpate its ally, al Qaeda, the organization that had carried out the most horrific terrorist attacks ever on U.S. soil.
That mission was swiftly accomplished. Or so it seemed. Leaders of the Taliban and al Qaeda fled to neighboring Pakistan — a most unreliable American ally — and to the Islamic Republic of Iran — a most reliable American enemy. With patience and determination, the Taliban and AQ began to plot their return to power.
In 2003, President George W. Bush’s attention shifted from Afghanistan to Iraq where he toppled a tyrant without a plan for what would follow.
President Obama thought himself wise for having opposed the intervention in Iraq. As for Afghanistan, he called that “the war that has to be won” on “the right battlefield.” But after dispatching Osama bin Laden in 2011, he declared, incorrectly, that only “remnants” of al Qaeda remained.
Former President Trump promised the Taliban that all U.S. troops would be withdrawn by May 1, 2021, in exchange for Taliban promises — such as breaking with al Qaeda — that were not remotely believable.
President Biden extended the timeline to Sept. 11, 2021. U.S. defense officials are now said to be withdrawing ahead of schedule which means there’s not much time left to mitigate the negative consequences of this historic capitulation to terrorists.
The odds that the Afghan government will survive without American air support, intelligence, training and other assistance are not good. A report issued last Thursday by a team of counterterrorism experts working for the U.N. Security Council finds that the Taliban are “contesting or controlling up to 70% of territory outside of urban areas,” and massing “their forces around key cities and towns,” ready to strike when “departing foreign troops are no longer able to effectively respond.” This is consistent with the research and reporting of my colleague, Bill Roggio, at FDD’s Long War Journal.
The U.N. report also finds that the relationship between the Taliban and al Qaeda “has grown deeper as a consequence of personal bonds of marriage and shared partnership in struggle, now cemented through second-generational ties.”
LTG (Ret.) H.R. McMaster served as President Trump’s national security adviser from 2017-18. Leon Panetta served as President Obama’s director of the CIA and then as secretary of Defense. Last week, they discussed what went wrong in Afghanistan and what’s still possible to salvage with Bradley Bowman, senior director of FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power, a West Point graduate who deployed to Afghanistan as a U.S. Army staff officer.
It’s worth listening to their conversation in its entirety (a recording and transcript are available online) but I’ll highlight a few key points here.
Gen. McMaster said the conflict in Afghanistan has not really been a 20-year war, but rather “a one-year war fought 20 times over. The inconsistency of effort is astounding over that period of time.”
Mr. Panetta said it was a serious mistake for the U.S. to hold talks with the Taliban and not insist that a representative of the Afghan government have a seat at the table. If the Taliban wouldn’t talk with the government while we had forces in Afghanistan, why would they do so after we’d bugged out? It also should have been obvious, he said, that continuing military pressure was necessary to force the Taliban to make concessions.
Gen. McMaster said he was puzzled by how many Americans, on both the left and right, have fallen for the delusion “that wars end when we leave — as if the Taliban will look around: ‘Hey, the Americans are gone. Let’s just stop fighting!’” Tests of that theory include Iraq, from which all U.S. troops were withdrawn in 2011, after which “then-Vice President Biden called up President Obama on the phone and said, ‘Thank you for allowing me to end this goddamn war!’”
Gen. McMaster summarized what followed: “Al Qaeda in Iraq didn’t stop and, in fact, morphed into the most destructive terrorist organization in history, ISIS, an organization … that by 2014 was in control of territory the size of Britain.”
Mr. Panetta emphasized that while Mr. Biden “inherited a legacy of failure” in Afghanistan, he should have made clear — and still could — “that we are not pulling away from Afghanistan in our responsibility to try to help Afghanistan in terms of its government, to provide aid to the Afghans, and also to be able militarily to conduct counterterrorism operations to go after targets in Afghanistan as well.”
He pointed out that if the Taliban take over, with al Qaeda under their wing, and with ISIS established in the country as well, there will be “a base of operations for terrorism, again, in Afghanistan. We cannot allow that to happen because all that needs to happen is one attack in this country as a result of that, and there is no question, we are going to be back at war in Afghanistan.”
Another downside to the current pace of withdrawal: Abandoning those who have struggled alongside us, in particular, Afghan translators who now risk execution for allying with Americans. “I think that sends a terrible message to our allies around the world in terms of whether or not they can trust the United States,” Mr. Panetta said.
“Protect the progress that’s been made,” he emphatically advised. “Don’t let that go to hell!”
Failing that, history will record that President Biden helped fulfill Khalid Sheikh Mohammad’s prediction. “We will win,” the captured al Qaeda mastermind of the 9/11 attacks told his interrogators years ago. “We only need to fight long enough for you to defeat yourself by quitting.”
• Clifford D. May is founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a columnist for the Washington Times.